Counseling & Psychotherapy of Religious Clients

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

I decided to summarize a few books as a discipline for “keeping” some of the material I’m reading. I just finished Vicky Genia’s Counseling and Psychotherapy of Religious Clients. I will say that I love the kind of material in this book. I find great value personally and professionally in the work of counselors and therapists who are familiar with the beautiful country of a person’s soul. Genia’s book brought together her theory of how faith develops from a psychological perspective. I’m still thinking through specific applications for pastoral care and for spiritual care. There are a handful that I may put in a different post.

Genia is writing for counselors and spiritual caregivers. And her hope in writing the book is to offer a developmental approach to faith development. She is a psychologist, not a theologian. She would likely consider her specialty the therapeutic work she does with people who have religious convictions and whose religious values or the lack thereof impact their lives. But her book is on the psychological dimensions of faith formation.

For her, faith develops in a never-completed lifelong process with an end we can only approximate. Faith or religious development may not be smooth or linear, though it does progress—like childhood into adulthood—through distinct phases. She is writing from a primarily psychoanalytic point of view, though she critiques the Freudian version of it. Part of what her viewpoint means is that she centers her work on the role and value of parents, particularly, but not exclusively, the mother. If you read the book, you sense the parents pronounced role in nourishing what will largely be an unconscious (or perhaps less conscious) process of faith development.

The book opens with a brief review of the predominant theoretical responses to religion and spirituality. Genia notes the Freudian reaction to religion as an elongated adolescent desire to be protected and cared for by a (divine) parent. She also points to the derivative behaviorist and cognitive-behavioral findings of religion as related to the irrational thoughts which come from people’s backgrounds and upbringing, making religion a part of that background. While Genia quickly summarizes humanistic psychology’s view of religion as 1) among the many things people find important and 2) dealing with some of the same themes and concerns which cause people to seek therapy, she says that humanistic psychology doesn’t generally embrace religion. She paints a picture, which is a very historical one, that the major theories in psychology are unsympathetic to religion.

Genia is clear in her kind treatment of the import and role of religion and religious expression in healthy living. She admits to and thinks through her own religious experience in the book to some degree. She’s coming at the subject as a person of faith. After having identified “the spiritual enterprise” as complex and deeply personal, she says that “This book is largely a result of my own efforts to straddle the boundary between psychology and religion.” Another way of saying that, is that she is not searching to affirm the words of Freud. But she does discuss good qualities of a person’s upbringing and how those qualities relate to religious health. She discusses the contrary too.

When talking specifically about health, she says (p. 11-12), “Admittedly, some religious communities are healthier than others. In some cases emotional disturbance can be exacerbated by harsh or deranged religious indoctrination. Nevertheless, emotionally unstable people are often drawn to destructive religious communities where they can reenact their emotional traumas.” The distortions, strife, and abuse in a person’s background severely impact religious development and expression. They impact a person’s choice of a faith community which is the context of faith development for most people. Genia then enters into the primary content of the book which is to provide developmental stages of faith.

In Stage one (Egocentric Faith) she defines egocentrism as a normal experience where a child is developing the capacity to engage in stable relationships, learning to associate and deal with positive and negative affects within the parent/child relationship, and beginning to develop an integrated sense of self. Infants and young children judge the world through the parent-child dyad; will see parents as good and trustworthy in order to feel secure; and will deny a parent’s wrongdoing in order to manage overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Because children don’t distinguish wishes from actions, when children hate their parents (for abuse or mistreatment), children can develop dissociative or delusional disorders, coping by creating illusory worlds, on one hand, or can “cultivate an exaggerated sense of self-importance,” on the other hand. In either case, Genia says that all children who have suffered maintain an “entitlement to a responsive other.” She relates this to the religiously egocentric in her writing, saying that abused children will reenact traumatic relationships in their relationship to God. “People who relate to others and to God as need-satisfying objects do not do so out of deliberate selfishness or insensitivity, but because of severe deprivations and mistreatment in infancy and early childhood…The plight of egocentric adults should spark our deepest compassion and understanding” (p. 24).

In terms of guidance for those who work with people in this stage, empathic bonding is temporarily reparative. Genia says that such bonding taken too long may foster over-idealization and dependency and reinforce splitting. Because persons in this stage don’t trust and because they expect mistreatment—they themselves have experienced deep betrayal—they have “little in his or her psychological repertoire from which to conceptualize a benevolent or loving deity.” In a therapeutic relationship, Genia says that calm acceptance of a person communicates that feelings aren’t fundamentally bad and that encouraging the person to examine feelings is reparative.

The second stage is a hardened stage in my view. Dogmatic Faith is the stage where religious obligations are observed out of a strong, firm, and unwavering view that compliance earns love and acceptance. This stage could take root in authoritarian parenting or in a context of overprotective parenting. People in this stage may be compulsive, emotionally constricted, and secure in such things. Individuals in this stage are wary of revealing feelings about anger or sexuality. In effect, they hide. Their “excessive need for approval compels them to inhibit any feeling or behavior that they think will result in rejection or criticism” (p. 54). In terms of faith development, they uncritically accept the parent’s religious view and conceptions and then begin to project a sadistic superego (i.e., the self-critical conscience within) onto God while experiencing God as critical and impossible to please. Experience of the parent impacts the experience of God. Religious affiliation brings a sense of security, affirmation. Genia offers several subgroups or subtypes for this stage of faith. They include the legalist, the martyr, the crusader, the intellectual, the recluse. She gives good explanation for each type in the book.

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

The third stage is what she calls transitional faith, and it results from significant inner conflict as a person seeks an integrated philosophy of life and personal identity. It happens during adolescence, though, as with other stages, characteristics of the stage can be re-experienced by adults. As for faith development, like in adolescence, the person feels a thrust toward independence as well as a desire to maintain bonds and relationships with “people who matter.”

Faith matures in the “storms of doubt” and leads to critical reflection on previous stages and previously held values. In this stage, people try on different ideologies, choose different religions, and experiment with new practices and affiliations. They lose previous selves in a sense, are susceptible to depression. They “become disembedded from the world view that they previously took for granted, they may feel anxious and confused,” and Genia suggests support, assistance with grief, and encouragement for them on this spiritual path. Also, it aides these persons to read spiritual histories or biographies of leaders who’ve encountered transitions.

The fourth stage is reconstructed faith. A person comes from the transitional phase of development and meets the self-accusations of the superego. The psychic ideal (or spiritual whatever have you) is working against a shame-provoking voice. In this stage, persons push toward the positive ideals and resist temptations. They adhere to certain behaviors and religious codes because they feel right and resonant with new inner convictions. God is experienced as an ally, as supportive, as trusted. People in this stage commit to chosen ideals, rely on personal conscience as opposed to others from a peer group or a church. Faith reconstruction involves releasing what feels like outmoded beliefs in comparison to the newly shaped identity. Spiritual experience that helps the person hear the voice within prove meaningful in this stage. One concern of this stage is that people within it don’t tend to associate with people of different views. They may lose the ability to foster such relationships during this phase. They may not, then, grow in particular ways because of their disinclination.

Transcendent faith is the highest stage in Genia’s paradigm. An endpoint of maturation, there is a focus on both what we believe and how we believe. There is a “celebration of selfhood” in this stage as well as an accompanying celebration of the diversity of others with different philosophical and theological values. This final stage includes a pervasive acknowledgement that “By weakening the human spirit and sacralizing self-contempt, a sin-focused religiosity has devastating effects on the person’s psychological and spiritual development” (pg 114). Indeed, this is a theme throughout Genia’s book. The parental experiences which have framed the spiritually unhealthy people she writes about are negative experiences, and her treatment, while not focusing on the parent’s sins, does focus on the impact of them.

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